Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hiking boots and shoes

Annual hiking amounting to 3 500 kilometers has provided some insight into footwear. There are back-packing boots specifically designed for hiking with a heavy pack.  These boots are stiffened for the purpose and are not sufficiently flexible for day hiking or walking. Footwear for day hiking or walking is covered in this article.

Some prefer boots and others prefer shoes for hiking. Boots are better in snow and mud and they offer additional ankle support, if you need it. Hiking shoes permit freer ankle movement and enable the hiker to be more nimble. Hiking subjects footwear to rugged use and you need something that will stand up to wear and tear, especially if you are an avid hiker.

Modern hiking footwear has been influenced by the ubiquitous running shoe that has emerged in the last three decades. Most hiking shoes are often little more than slightly beefed up running shoes. The basic construction of the running shoe consists of the tread or wearing surface of the sole, a mid-sole of spongy shock absorbing foam and the upper part of the shoe.

The spongy shock absorbing mid sole of most running shoes is a material called EVA or ethylene vinyl acetate. It gives the shoe a comfortable feel and absorbs shock well when new. Unfortunately, the material tends to compress permanently and loose its bounce. This can happen after 500 kilometers of use. Most hiking shoes also use this material in the mid sole. Wear and compression of the mid sole puts strain on the upper part of shoe and it can deteriorate. Further, compression of the mid sole exposes the foot to poking from sharp rocks and stones if the tread or out sole is thin.

Vibram is a leading maker of sloes for hiking footwear. Their thick compressed rubber soles were and still are the standard on quality hiking footwear. However Vibram also makes a variety of thinner soles for hiking shoes and boots. A thin Vibram sole on a EVA mid sole can have a limited life expectancy of about 1000 kilometers.

The secret to durable hiking footwear is the use of polyurethane in the mid sole as opposed to EVA. The material feels slightly harder to the foot when you first put the shoe on and may not feel as comfortable as the softer EVA. However, if you walk 10 kilometers or more on the polyurethane mid sole, your feet will feel much better than on EVA. Polyurethane  mid soles and thick Vibram out soles or tread are the hallmarks of durable hiking shoes or boots. Shoes or boots of this type of sole construction and a good leather upper can last for 6 000 kilometers of hiking. They may even give some further service in the garden after the cleats on the tread are worn down. While hiking boots or shoes of this quality are more expensive initially, their cost per kilometer of hiking can be substantially less than poorer quality footwear.

Vibram or other rubber soles provide good grip on dry rock. Thread patterns with more smaller cleats provide better grip or traction. Traction of Vibram or other compressed rubber soles is much reduced on wet rock especially if it has algae, moss, or a scattering of leaf litter on top. These soles offer almost no grip on wet wood or roots. Foresters and loggers often wear caulk or spiked boots to provide sufficient grip in the forest. However, these are not necessary if you are on trails. Some hikers prefer hobnail boots for traction, but these are almost a thing of the past. Thick leather soles required to take the hob nails or caulks usually make for a heavy boot. Viberg is a manufacturer of these specialty boots.

Most of the hiking shoes that look like running shoes are little more than glorified running shoes with EVA mid-soles. These only suffice for occasional use and are good for about 1 000 kilometers of hiking. A notable exception are Vasque Mantra hiking shoes with a polyurethane mid sole with a life of approximately 3 000 kilometers.

If you want durable hiking boots or shoes, the European hiking and mountaineering footwear manufacturers are the best bet. Quality leather uppers will outlast synthetic materials if you take care of the leather. Make sure that it is a hiking boot rather than a backpacking boot and look for polyurethane mid soles. We have two pairs of Scarpa leather hiking boots with 7 000 kilometers of use. The soles are worn but the leather uppers are intact. Scarpa is an Italian make but some of the other well known European hiking footwear manufacturers make good quality.  The German footwear manufacturer Lowa is less well known in North America but makes excellent hiking boots and shoes. The polyurethane mid soles of Lowa boots and shoes are lightweight and more advanced in construction. Lowa uses good quality leather and you can get boots and shoes lined with glove leather. Leather linings absorb moisture and do not become wet with sweat like most of the synthetic liners. Leather linings protect against blisters. Some Lowa models come in a boot or shoe. The shoes have the durability of the boots. I am currently hiking in a pair of Lowa Renegade shoes. They look like new although they have 2 100 kilometers of use to date.

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